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Employees’ Entrance February 11, 2009

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1930s , trackback

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Film Forum in New York City is having another of its wonderful series of classic Hollywood movies, most of which are being shown in double features and many of the films haven’t been released on DVD. The title this time is “Breadlines and Champagne,” with a theme focusing on movies released around the time of the Great Depression. Nearly all were made prior to the implementation of the Production Code and they remain incredibly fresh even today. Some of the plots and jokes are relevant now more than in a very long time, adding a sad but fascinating layer to the viewing experience. This doesn’t seem lost on the folks at FF, as they’ve scheduled giveaway drawings each Tuesday night and even kicked off the program with a full day of the Mae West picture I’m No Angel at only 35 cents admission. I found a quarter beside a subway turnstile and it covered my full member ticket!

Filmwise, I was more interested in a double feature pairing two Warren William pictures. Skyscraper Souls, from 1932, has William as the namesake and owner of a 100-story skyscraper who uses nefarious means to get most anything he wants. It’s usually compared to Grand Hotel due to both films centering on several characters in a single setting. The cast is a step down in name recognition, including Maureen O’Sullivan, Norman Foster, and Anita Page, but they perform ably. In particular, there’s a sequence late in the film where William has devised a scheme to obtain full ownership of the building by paying all his outstanding loans. The plan involves basically ruining the lives, sometimes in the immediate sense while others more permanently, of everyone else in the cast. It plays out with a gravity that completely shifts the tone of the movie and feels all too familiar to followers of current events. Some nice camera work from William Daniels also contributes to making Skyscraper Souls entirely worth watching.

Even still, it’s not in the same league with Employees’ Entrance, which is simultaneously shocking and giddily enjoyable. William is basically the same character as in the earlier film, but the performance is far more ferocious and unapologetic. If you’re not familiar with Warren William as an actor, track down this movie (it’s on VHS and shows on TCM occasionally) to see someone who essentially has no peer from that era for charismatically playing complete pricks. His characterization of department store boss Kurt Anderson teeters between going over the top and being so forceful as to almost make the viewer feel sorry for this guy. He’s an inveterate womanizer, setting his sights on Loretta Young both before and after she’s married his protege, and he has zero compassion, reacting to the suicide of a longtime employee he’d recently fired with the rationalization that all men should kill themselves when they’re no longer useful. And yet, you can’t take your eyes off of William, with a face resembling a bull terrier, when he’s on the screen.

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As in Skyscraper Souls, there’s quite a bit to ponder regarding capitalism in Employees’ Entrance. The film is set almost entirely in a large department store, where William’s character Anderson quickly rises to the top based on his proven ability to increase sales. His entire existence, save for carnal flings, revolves around how to improve the store’s profits and he’s unwilling to tolerate even a single mistake. He eschews ethics and decency for the success at whatever cost mentality. He’s cutthroat, diabolical and irredeemable, but he gets the job done while displaying a total commitment to his endeavor. The portrayal feels very American to me for its insistence on being number one. I feel like that’s the ideal of the country, the secret of success, and I don’t know how relevant it remains right now. Part of the sheer glee in watching William unload on the various levels of incompetence around him is in knowing that he’s almost always in the right. His methods are debatable, but we see no one in the film working more passionately than Anderson does.

Just how he works is also part of the fun. Anderson thinks one character is overseeing his every move a little too closely so he sends a very willing model from the women’s department to keep the man company, doubling her salary for the trouble. The model is played by Alice White, an actress who ideally should’ve been a much bigger name than she was. She was also in the James Cagney movie Picture Snatcher, among a few others, but she’s really great here as a bubbled up blonde who’s more sly than she seems. Her scenes with William have some of the snappiest dialogue, from a screenplay filled with breakneck quips, in the film. I believe it’s their first meeting we see when he tells her that he didn’t recognize her with all those clothes on. The line isn’t delivered in a cutesy and forced provocative way like one of Mae West’s quips, making it even more jawdropping.

Though the ostensible plot of Employees’ Entrance is most concerned with a romance between Young and Wallace Ford, and their secret marriage, the film and director Roy Del Ruth seem more interested in William terrorizing everyone in his path. You might still expect some redemption of the character, given the film’s time and place, but we instead get a good 75 minutes of behavior totally lacking in scruples. Anderson doesn’t change, see the light, face punishment, or any of that other Production Code nonsense. His stripes remain firmly in place all the way to the end. When his protege, played by Ford, threatens to shoot him from point blank range, Anderson provides encouragement and then mocks him for only hitting his wrist. He seems to be almost laughing at the thought that a mere bullet could take him down.

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